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Rio Tinto will look into using renewable hydrogen to power a key process at its Yarwun alumina refinery in Gladstone in a $1.2 million study.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) will contribute up to $579,786 towards the feasibility study.

Conventional alumina refining combusts natural gas to achieve the high temperatures necessary in the calcination process.

Rio Tinto will investigate the technical implications of displacing that natural gas with renewable hydrogen at the Yarwun plant.

One aspect of the study will see the company simulate the calcination process using a lab scale reactor at its Bundoora Technical Development Centre in Melbourne, Victoria.

And a preliminary engineering and design study is planned at Yarwun to understand the construction and operational requirements of a potential demonstration project at the refinery.

ARENA has identified the alumina sector as a key target in its strategy to support industry to reduce emissions due to the potential size of emissions abatement.

In 2019, alumina refining accounted for more than 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in Australia, which represents approximately 24 per cent of Australia’s scope 1 manufacturing emissions.

Australia is the world’s largest producer of bauxite and the largest exporter of alumina, accounting for 15 per cent of global alumina refining capacity. Rio Tinto accounts for about a third of Australia’s total alumina production capacity.

The company is aiming to reach net zero emissions across its operations by 2050.

Across the company, it is targeting a 15 per cent reduction in absolute emissions and a 30 per cent reduction in its emissions intensity by 2030, from a 2018 baseline.

“We see the ARENA and Rio Tinto-funded study as a step towards reducing refinery emissions and one that has the potential to play an important part in Rio Tinto’s commitment to decarbonisation,” Rio Tinto Aluminium Pacific Operations acting managing director Daniel van der Westhuizen said.

“We’re investing in work that needs to be done, not only to decarbonise one of our sites, but also to help provide a lower-emissions pathway for Rio Tinto and the global aluminium industry.

“We recognise we are on a long road towards reducing emissions across our operations and there is clearly more work to be done. But projects such as this are an important part of helping us get there.”

If successful, the technical and commercial lessons from Rio Tinto’s study could lead to the implementation of hydrogen calcination technology, not only in Australia, but also internationally, ARENA chief executive officer Darren Miller said.

ARENA is also contributing $11.3 million in funding for fellow refiner Alcoa to investigate and deploy an alternative technology that uses recycled steam for process heat powered by renewable energy. 

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